Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Descendants: A bit underwhelming

A couple of hours well spent, but The Descendants is not the film of the year it’s hyped up to be. It looks good, as it gently explores what makes the best and worst in our relationships. Perhaps because it’s more message than story, or because it tries too hard to have a comic edge, it fails to pack a real punch.

The Descendants is set against the conspicuous wealth and natural beauty of Hawaii. It’s easy to dismiss the tourism, beachfront high-rises, country clubs and golf courses and embrace the threatened land. It’s on the side of the angels but this allegory of the rich saving the planet is hardly an environmental blueprint for any meaningful action.

Overall, the cast seems to do the script justice. George Clooney as Matt King has an awkward part, which he fills competently but without brilliance. King may understand himself better by the end but the audience probably don’t. After the magnificent views of undeveloped coastal Hawaii, I suspect his running style will be one of the lasting visual memories.

The young’uns steal the show. Shailene Woodley as seventeen-year-old Alexandra does rant and one-liners equally well and has real screen presence. Amara Miller as younger sister Scottie is hard not to like but her part has a familiar feel. Sid (Nick Krause) is an important addition to the story – a reality check for the others.

Director and co-writer Alexander Payne has given us a tight, entertaining movie but it lacks the vitality of his masterpiece Sideways. The exploration of family relationships is trite at times: the absent husband and father, the difficult wife and mother, the rebellious teenager and the confused child. The extended family holds more interest especially the tough, merciless father-in-law played by Robert Forster.

The cousins have much potential, lead by Beau Bridges as Hugh. However, like the conservation/heritage theme that underlies this part of the narrative, this element is underdone. Another real estate drama gets too much time and attention and slips into the bizarre at times.

Well worth seeing, but not a worthy Oscar contender for mine.